The View From Their Insurrection


A reader on the ground in Turkey shares his perspective:

I’m in Istanbul at the moment, and until this morning I was staying five minutes’ walk from Taksim Square. When I arrived there was tear gas everywhere, floating down the side-streets and punishing practically the entire Beyoglu neighbourhood. I can’t help but feel that this kind of collective punishment is doing plenty to turn people who would otherwise be content to sit aside against Tayyip Erdogan and his government. The protestors have been incredibly destructive to people’s property, especially down the main Isklidal street which is Istanbul’s main shopping avenue – but this hasn’t met with the kind of revulsion I saw a couple of years ago during the London riots, I think because the Istanbullos feel the protestors are defending rather than attacking the city. Whenever a crowd of protestors – who now wear gas masks as a badge of pride wherever they go – pass through town on their way to Taksim, ordinary, non-protesting people nevertheless stand up and applaud them as they go. There’s a quite diverse range of protestors – you have the usual anarchists and eco-warriors plus Kurdish nationalists, and I’ve even seen a couple of Hizbullah graffitos (though that’s probably just mischief-making) but on the whole it is just a range of ordinary people without any kind of political affiliation.

(Photo: Protestors clash with riot police near Turkish prime minister’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan office, between Taksim and Besiktas in Istanbul, on June 3, 2013, during a demonstration against the demolition of the park. By Gurcan Ozturk/Getty Images.

Turkey’s Broken “Model”

Istanbul Protests Continue

When it comes to Washington’s stance toward the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan government, Steven A. Cook and Michael Koplow point out the divide between hope and reality:

In the midst of the endless volley of teargas against protesters in Taksim, one of the prime minister’s advisors plaintively asked, “How can a government that received almost 50 percent of the vote be authoritarian?” This perfectly captures the more recent dynamic of Erdogan’s Turkey, where the government uses its growing margins of victory in elections to justify all sorts of actions that run up against large reservoirs of opposition. … Turkey’s anti-democratic turn has all taken place without much notice from the outside world. It was not just coercive measures — arrests, investigations, tax fines, and imprisonments — that Washington willfully overlooked in favor of a sunnier narrative about the “Turkish miracle.” Perhaps it is not as clear, but over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk.

They argue that while the current protests will likely lead to much needed change for Turkey’s troubled democracy, the US must pursue a new approach as well:

Perhaps the Obama administration does not care about Turkey’s reversion or has  deemed it better to counsel, cajole, and encourage Erdogan privately and through quiet acts of defiance like extending the term of Amb. Francis Ricciardone, who has gotten under the government’s skin over press freedom, for another year. This long game has not worked. It is time the White House realized that Erdogan’s rhetoric on democracy has far outstripped reality. Turkey has less to offer the Arab world than the Obama administration appears to think, and rather than just urging Arab governments to pay attention to the demands of their citizens, Washington might want to urge its friends in Ankara to do the same as well.

Claire Sadar distinguishes the Turkish protests from the movements that made up the Arab Spring:

Despite the fact that many are making the easy (and inaccurate) comparison between the Occupy Gezi movement and the protest movements that brought on the Arab Spring, in all likelyhood this movement will not birth a full out revolution.  Unlike the Arab Spring countries, Turkey is a democracy.  The importance of this cannot be overstated.  …  [T]he popularity of Erdogan and the AKP will certainly take a hit but when it comes down to the line, I am willing to bet that Turkey would rather go with the devil it knows (and elected) over the devil it doesn’t know.   However, Erdogan’s ability to guide the creation of a new constitution, already compromised, is likely lost and with it his dream of becoming Turkey’s first American style president.

David Gardner stresses [FT] the increasing self-isolation among the AKP:

Part of this drama is the paradox that Mr Erdogan and the AKP, politically paramount but paranoid about plots against them, behave as though they were still the opposition – with the difference that the feedback loop of this normally well-oiled political machine has been short-circuited by sycophants. Before first winning power in October 2002, the AKP spent 22 months interviewing in depth 41,000 people across the country. Now, even allies admit, Mr Erdogan listens mostly to himself.

The Dish’s coverage of Turkey from over the weekend here, here and here.

(Photo: A man walks by makeshift barricades near Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office on June 3, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. By Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Erdogan’s Paternalism
Louis Fishman paints a picture of the prime minister’s arrogance that would make even Mike Bloomberg blush:

From implementing policies encouraging women to have three children, to his goal to raise a ‘moral’ generation of youth that will sign up to his interpretation of what a good Muslim is, more and more Turks have become tired of a Prime Minister who promotes policies that interfere with their daily lives. Just before the protest began new laws were enacted aimed at curbing alcohol consumption in the public sphere. It should be clear it is not that so many Turks would be affected by the laws; even if drinking Raki (and beer to some extent) is considered by many as a Turkish pastime, actually a low percentage of them actually drink on a regular basis. Rather, it was in the very condescending way Erdogan related his disdain for those who do drink, inferring that they were all drunks.

Parallel to this, Erdogan’s personal dictation of the policies of urban renewal and of massive infrastructure projects have taken their toll on the Turkish population. It seems that no power is strong enough to stop a project that the Prime Minister supports; whether it is the third Bosphorus bridge, the new mega-airport, or the numerous dams that are flooding cities throughout the Anatolian heartland. In fact, it was due to this very reason that the Erdogan’s obsession to replicate an Ottoman armory, even stressing his wish that it be used as a shopping mall, irked so many, regardless of political affiliation or social background. As high rises replace shanty towns, and shopping malls blossom at the speed of flowers in the spring, the 606 trees at Taksim Park turned into a real issue for many.

Earlier Dish on the protests in Turkey this weekend here and here.

What The Hell Is Happening In Turkey? Ctd

A comparison of the Turkish vs international coverage of Saturday’s protests:

Media Censorship

Juan Cole defends Erdogan’s democratic mandate and record:

[His government] was last elected in June, 2011, at which time [his AKP party] received about half the votes in the country (an improvement on past performances). The elections appear to be on the up and up, and [AKP] seems genuinely popular in the countryside and in many urban districts. The economy has grown enormously in the past decade under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey is now the world’s 17th largest economy (by nominal gdp) according to the IMF. It has been averaging 5 percent growth per year at a time when neighbors in the EU like Greece and Spain are basket cases. It has a huge tourism sector that has benefited from the troubles in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon. The economy will likely only grow 3% this year, but that is still a good number given Europe’s doldrums.

However, Cole also links the fate of the country’s democracy to the Erdogan government’s exceptionally poor treatment of dissent and the press:

The protests were not mainly about the environment or retaining green parks but about police brutality. Turkey’s political tradition has never been particularly tolerant of dissent, and unfortunately the AKP is continuing in a tradition of crackdowns on political speech it doesn’t like. Reporters without Borders ranks the country 154 for press freedom, and it has 76 journalists in jail, and “at least 61 of those were imprisoned as a direct result of their work.” Observers are astonished to find that Saturday morning’s newspapers in Turkey are virtually silent about the protests. Editors have clearly been intimidated into keeping quiet about these events.

… By preventing peaceful assembly and deploying disproportionate force, and by an apparent imposed news blackout on the protests, the Turkish government is raising questions about how democratic the country really is.

Elsewhere, Aaron Stein surveys the makeup of those who support Turkey’s ruling AKP party:

[T]he dynamics of the protests now reflect many of the fundamental antagonisms in Turkey’s imperfect democracy. Erdogan’s divisive rhetoric and his penchant for authoritarian rule have steadily eroded the party’s support from small constituencies that it could once count on. While the AKP’s voter base is often simplistically assumed to be religious conservatives, the truth of the matter is that AKP supporters include a small number of liberals eager to do away with the undemocratic constitution, a business sector happy with the party’s handling of the economy, nationalists who are pleased with what they perceive as Turkey’s re-emergence as a global power, Turkish Islamists obsessed with the proliferation of Ottomania (a growing desire among the Turkish population to reconnect and reacquaint themselves with the country’s imperial past), and some members of Turkey’s Kurdish minority who are pleased with AKP’s democratic reforms. …

[D]uring the early years of Erdogan’s rule, which were characterized by a sustained push to reform Turkish laws along European Union standards, the ruling party was able to co-opt some parts of the more liberal segments of the population. Lots of people that did not compromise part of the AKP’s core constituency, for example, would lambast Erdogan publicly but would quietly vote for him because he was handling the economy well and they were pleased with the growing liberal freedoms. This dynamic has ended.

Taking another angle, Peter Beaumont zooms in on the rampant corruption that makes people so suspicious of the government development plans like the ones that started last week’s protests:

As Transparency International made clear in a recent survey of Turkey, while its elections largely have been free and fair, corruption, especially linked to the construction industry, has been a growing problem. In April, for the first time ever, two officials in Turkey’s public housing administration – which enjoys a virtually unopposed monopoly to redevelop private and public land, including a 20-year, $400bn urban renewal budget – were charged with extorting bribes and abuse of power. Indeed those who have benefited from recent large projects have allegedly included key players in Turkish society, including members of Erdogan’s own party, a company run by Erdogan’s son-in-law and the Turkish armed forces.

The perception in Turkey that barely regulated development is being driven for the economic benefit of entrenched interests with links to party politics, rather than in the public interest, has been fuelled by the hard data about some of the most controversial developments, including Gezi Park. As a recent article in Hurriyet Daily News made clear, Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, hardly needs more malls. Istanbul already has so many that 11 in the city have been forced to close down.

What The Hell Is Happening In Turkey?

Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in more than a dozen cities this weekend following a brutal police crackdown on an Occupy-style sit-in aimed at preventing a popular Istanbul park from being bulldozed:

Protesters lit fires and scuffled with police in parts of Istanbul and Ankara early on Sunday, but the streets were generally quieter after two days of Turkey’s fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years. Hundreds of protesters set fires in the Tunali district of the capital Ankara, while riot police fired tear gas and pepper spray to hold back groups of stone-throwing youths near Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s office in Istanbul.

Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, where the protests have been focused, was quieter after riot police pulled back their armored trucks late on Saturday. Demonstrators lit bonfires among overturned vehicles, broken glass and rocks and played cat-and-mouse on side streets with riot police, who fired occasional volleys of tear gas.

The unrest was triggered by protests against government plans to [demolish Gezi Park and] build a replica Ottoman-era barracks to house shops or apartments in Taksim, long a venue for political protest. But it has widened into a broader show of defiance against Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

As of this morning, more than 900 protesters have been arrested and more than 1,000 injured across at least 90 protests throughout the country. Taksim Square remains occupied, although with a smaller group than yesterday. Considering how quickly the demonstrations materialized, Zeynep Tufekci highlights the extensive role social media has played, also noting that while Turkey is no stranger to political protests, she has never seen one this large or spontaneous before. Elif Bauman makes a related point about Turkey’s vibrant protest culture, and why this one seems different:

The feeling of unreality and disconnect is at the heart of the Gezi [Park] demonstrations. Istanbul loves to demonstrate; I can’t remember ever walking through Taksim without seeing at least one march or parade or sit-in, and on weekends there are usually several going on at the same time. Usually, they are small, peaceful, and self-contained, and the police just stand there. For some time now, the demonstrations have had a strangely existential feel. Again and again, people have protested the destruction of some historical building or the construction of some new shopping center. Again and again, the historical building has been destroyed, and the shopping center constructed.

Nearly every slogan chanted on the streets right now addresses Erdogan by name, and Erdogan hasn’t been talking back much. On Wednesday, he told protesters, “Even if hell breaks loose, those trees will be uprooted”; on Saturday, he issued a statement accusing the demonstrators of manipulating environmentalist concerns for their own ideological agendas. It’s hard to argue with him there; there’s little doubt that the demonstrations are less about [Gezi Park’s] six hundred and six trees than about a spreading perception that Erdogan refuses to hear what people are trying to tell him.

In addition, Erdogan and the AKP recently rushed through a law to limit alcohol sales and even targeted kissing in public, moves widely perceived to be theocratically motivated. Regarding the government’s ongoing development plans for Istanbul, Firat Demir explains the outrage:

With no public consultation or discussion, the Erdogan government decided earlier this month to approve a project that would transform Taksim Square into a shopping center, rerouting the traffic that now passes through this vital hub on the European side of Istanbul through tunnels underneath. The news of the project has generated a flood of angry responses from the public, all of which the government has uniformly ignored. Among other things, the proposed redevelopment plan will wipe out one of the few remaining greenspaces in the densely packed area — the latest in a long series of similarly insensitive urban design schemes.

The Taksim plan follows another controversial plan to build a gigantic and spectacularly ugly new bridge on the current site of the Galata Bridge, one of Istanbul’s longest-standing architectural landmarks. The bridge project is the brainchild of Istanbul’s Islamist mayor, an Erdogan ally, who designed it himself. If built, the bridge will completely transform the silhouette of the old city. Apart from the fact that this is the mayor’s sole attempt to dabble in architecture, the complete absence of any public consultation or competition for the project has confirmed, for many Turks, Erdogan’s seeming aspiration to crown himself as the new sultan of Turkey. The ruling party’s misguided ambitions for Galata and Taksim come after a series of demolitions of 500-year-old Istanbul neighborhoods such as Sulukule, Tarlabasi, or Balat that have fed public discontent — particularly since many of those who benefited also appear to have unseemly links with the ruling Islamists. Just to make matters worse, last month the government also finalized a contract for a  new nuclear power point despite mass public opposition to nuclear power throughout the country.

Another new bridge has an offensive name:

The prospective bridge [across the northern Bosphorus] was given the name of Sultan Selim the Grim, the cruellest adversary of Alevis and Shiites in Ottoman history. Conqueror of Egypt, the powerful sultan is known for the massacres of tens of thousands of Anatolian Alevis prior to and after his war against Iran. The bridge might have well been named after Rumi, the great Sufi thinker who spread the teaching of universal tolerance from Anatolia, or any other Islamic humanist. It is not hard to guess how offensive the choice of Selim’s name is for the Alevi community – who form about 10% of the population and are still awaiting an official acknowledgement of their religious identity and worship rights.

Stepping back, Murat Yetkin isn’t sure what the unrest will ultimately lead to, but at the very least the protests mark the first public defeat Erdogan has faced as prime minister, and that his rigid refusal to compromise could cost him still further:

To call this a “Turkish Spring” would be over-dramatizing it. It could be, if there were opposition forces in Turkey that could move in to stop the one man show of a mighty power holder. But it can easily be said that the Taksim brinkmanship marked a turning point in the almighty image of Erdoğan.

Issandr El Amrani similarly wonders if this weekend’s uprising will burst the “much-inflated Erdogan bubble that [has] thrived pretty much unchallenged for the last decade.” Meanwhile, Amberin Zaman offers some key analysis:

My overall impression, and it’s commonly shared, is that the Taksim Park project has morphed into a vehicle for popular resentment against Erdogan’s increasingly dismissive and authoritarian ways. Under a decade of AKP rule, Turkey has become the world’s top jailer of journalists. Its interventionist policy in Syria is causing alarm. The systematic and disproportionate use of force against the slightest display of dissent obscures that the AKP was democratically elected and remains the most popular government in modern Turkish history. Yet, egged on by the slavishly self-censoring Turkish media, Erdogan seems increasingly out of touch.

Zaman adds that next year’s nationwide local elections now loom larger than ever:

Erdogan’s political fortunes hinge on how the government handles the crisis. Pulling back the police and allowing the crowds to gather on the second day was a step in the right direction.

Turkey is not on the brink of a revolution. A Turkish Spring is not afoot. Erdogan is no dictator. He is a democratically elected leader who has been acting in an increasingly undemocratic way. And as Erdogan himself acknowledged, his fate will be decided at the ballot box, not in the streets.

A protester-made video compilation of Friday’s violence in Istanbul is here. To go through a raw feed of photographs of the protests, check out this Tumblr. Reuters has put together an extensive gallery as well, including this photo of a woman being pepper sprayed in the face which many are citing as a major catalyst for the outrage. Update from an expat reader in Istanbul:

Just a quick correction to begin with, you mentioned the name of the replacement of the Galata bridge would be the Selim. This is not true – while there are plans to replace the Galata bridge, I do not believe that there are plans to change the name (although I may be wrong about this point). The Selim bridge is not by Galata (over the Golden Horn), but is in fact the planned third bridge to cross the Bosphorus at the northern end of the straits. It will be the third bridge to do so and has caused immense uproar not just for its name (which your post addressed), but also because of ecological and urban density concerns.

Its construction and the construction of the requisite new and improved roads to it will cause incredible amounts of damage to the forest in the northern portion of the Istanbul metropolitan area. Another issue is the heavy-handed, highly-centralized and authoritarian nature of the bridge’s approval. Erdogan rushed it through without an adequate environmental study and with no input from the local community (a fact shared with the Gezi park and Tarlabasi plans). Two additional mega projects that have caused widespread anger are the third airport, planned to be built to the northwest, and a canal to the west of Istanbul connecting the Marmara to the Black Sea. These two plans are similarly highly desired by ‘King’ Erdogan, but have caused a lot of public anger.

While the relative cost/benefit analysis for any of these projects can be argued (and I personally think the 3rd bridge and a new or heavily expanded current airport are necessary), it is Erdogan’s conduct that is the biggest issue. Whatever he decides is right, he rushes through with little opposition internally in the AKP (everyone is terrified of him, except for those protected by President Gul, who has his own faction within the AKP) and no opposition nationally or locally is allowed.

Erdogan’s dialogue since the protests began has ventured into the absurd, calling the protesters marauders, terrorists, extremists. It has frankly been a fairly diverse and peaceful group. There was certainly violence perpetrated yesterday in particular by a small portion of the protesters (my roommates reported reckless destruction of major brandname stores on Istiklal street), most protesters have been peaceful in spite of massive police brutality and the use of CS and CR gas. I have attached some pictures and videos from the protests in the Kadikoy neighborhood from Friday night/saturday morning (taken at 2:30-3:00am). These are not terrorists or thugs, but ordinary citizens.

No one knows where things will go from here, but if Erdogan loses a bit of his luster, it will certainly help.